Iowa parishioner takes financial expertise to Africa

.- Roger Holck retired as community president with F&M Bank last July. But the member of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell, Iowa is still making use of his financial knowledge — albeit a bit farther from home.

Holck, 63, has traveled twice in the past year to Africa, where he helped farmers set up informal credit unions, get business financing and learn improved farming methods. And he hopes to continue volunteering in the Farmer-to-Farmer program that’s organized through CNFA, a not-for-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that works to stimulate economic growth around the globe.

His first trip, which began the day after he retired last summer, was a three-week journey to the southeastern African country of Malawi. There he helped the owner of a produce shop improve record-keeping and put together a proposal for a loan to install an irrigation system for his 10-acre garden. Holck said the owner, Bobby Mlongoti, loved growing fruits and vegetables and was thrilled to discover he’d be able to buy the irrigation system. “Bobby was very thankful for my help.”

The Grinnell parishioner’s second trip took him to Uganda in central Africa in March. There, he discovered, “unemployment is about 20 percent and there is no unemployment compensation, no welfare system and no national retirement income. The majority of people are self-employed, so if they can’t work, they can’t eat.”

To help improve residents’ economic situation, he assisted a farmers’ association in establishing informal credit companies. He later discovered that residents also were interested in learning how to improve crop production. The Ugandans were farming as U.S. farmers did in the late 1800s, he observed.

So Holck, who grew up on a farm and has a degree in agricultural business, held meetings to discuss fertilizer and higher-performing seeds. He said residents absorbed the information “like a sponge.” But now they need the resources to buy supplies — such as plows and oxen — that will help them use that knowledge, he added. Over time, the credit companies ideally will generate new wealth.

What many African residents already are rich in, Holck discovered, is faith. In Uganda, attending Easter Mass with about 800 people was “quite a moving experience” thanks to Catholics’ enthusiasm. A two-hour procession to church on Good Friday also was memorable, even though participants weren’t speaking English, he said.

In fact, a penchant for the unfamiliar was partly what motivated Holck to travel abroad. He said he has long been involved in volunteer efforts, and the adventure and challenge of serving in another country appealed to him.

He appreciated the fulfillment of helping people, too. Though he hasn’t communicated with Ugandans since leaving, he’s heard that the irrigation system in Malawi is working, and residents there want him to return. He undoubtedly will volunteer through the Farmer-to-Farmer program again in some country, he said.

Holck made the trips “hoping I could make a difference for an individual or a group of people. I felt both times I was able to do that.”


Printed with permission from The Catholic Messenger, newspaper for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.

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